Former Post Office chief Paula Vennells to hand back CBE

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The Post Office’s former chief executive Paula Vennells will hand back her CBE after the UK prime minister backed calls for a review into whether she should be stripped of her honour.

Vennells said in a statement on Tuesday that she would return the CBE with immediate effect. She received it in December 2018 as part of the Conservative government’s New Year honours list.

Vennells was Post Office chief executive between 2012 and 2019. During her tenure, she staunchly defended the Horizon IT system and was in charge when the state-owned business spent millions of pounds battling sub-postmasters in a landmark Court of Appeal case.

More than 700 sub-postmasters were prosecuted by the Post Office between 2000 and 2014 based on information from the faulty Horizon computer system. To date, 93 convictions have been overturned and the scandal is the subject of an ongoing public inquiry.

Hundreds more were pursued in civil litigation, while it was estimated that more than 3,500 sub-postmasters were affected by the scandal.

“I continue to support and focus on co-operating with the inquiry and expect to be giving evidence in the coming months,” said Vennells on Tuesday. “I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart.”

Vennells, who stepped down as chief executive of the Post Office in February 2019, had been subject to repeat calls to return her CBE in recent days.

More than 1mn people signed a petition calling for Vennells to be stripped of her honour, after the screening of an ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office this month raised awareness of the scandal.

On Monday, the prime minister’s spokesperson said Rishi Sunak would “strongly support” the honours forfeiture committee “if it chose to review” the CBE awarded to Vennells. He added that Sunak shared the public’s sense of outrage over the affair.

Justice secretary Alex Chalk told MPs on Tuesday that the Horizon affair was “truly exceptional, truly unprecedented and it will need an appropriate resolution”. He said plans to introduce a bill to exonerate sub-postmasters en masse were under “active consideration”. 

Alan Bates, founder of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, previously declined an OBE stating it would be inappropriate while Vennells retained her CBE.

Vennells is expected to give evidence to the public inquiry this year as part of a final phase of evidence exploring the role of senior executives and ministers in the Horizon affair.